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Robert Louis Stevenson in Calistoga, California

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Roaming in the California Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson


My affair with Robert Louis Stevenson started early, I was  five or six.  Daddy read Treasure Island aloud from a thick volume with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth while  we three girls took turns sitting next to him on the couch.  Little me enjoyed a kindred imagination and the vivid alternative worlds where adventure happened every day.  More of that, please!

Perhaps unconsciously, I’ve followed that path, seeking outdoor thrills and ultimately creating opportunities to assuage that addiction to the adventurous options life offers. Stevenson wandered the world, so to follow his footsteps could take many months, probably years.  I planned a journey in California dogging Stevenson’s tracks during 1879-80 while the young writer waited to marry Fanny Osbourne, who needed a divorce first.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

After a stop in Santa Cruz to photograph the house where I lived for a while back in the day, and a brief stop at San Gregorio Beach to dip my toes in the Pacific, I nosed the rental south on 101 past artichoke fields and cattle ranches. Wind tilted the few bicyclists braving the blustery day.  More than a decade had passed since I’d visited this region. Development had been contained, leaving the shore visible where the road passed close.  Nature’s whiplash had gouged portions of the cliffs and flooding had eroded the roadbed, but highway department trucks and workers gave the sense that government was attentive to the problem.

Carmel-By-the Sea was my first destination.  This picture-perfect secluded upscale community that nurtures the American impulse to shop was a colony for Bohemians and artists back in the 1880’s, a place where Stevenson would have fit right in. Nor did I have any trouble blending in with the Keds and khaki-clad locals frolicking with their dogs on the beach. After lunch on the shaded patio at The Village Corner, I poked around the courtyards of Carmel and discovered  a charming design store selling accessories for Beatrix Potter style gardening.  Carmel is still an artist’s colony.  In another courtyard studio, the artist Lisa Bryan-Day showed me watercolor sketches of horses while we sipped Napa’s fruit.

At sunset I ambled through Mission Trail Park, a nature zone opposite Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, aka Carmel Mission.  The meandering trails pass surprisingly close to the back gates of high-end real estate. When I focused on the woods or scanned the distance for the Mission’s red tile roof, it didn’t take much imagination to place Stevenson in the landscape leaning against a pine tree, smoking and considering the evening light.  There’s no proof that Stevenson prowled these same hills, but Carmel is on the way to Point Lobos where Stevenson spent happy hours staring at the raging waves. According to his diaries, he would ride a donkey out from Monterey and stay with the goatherds camping in the Carmel Valley.

Point Lobos State Park

Point Lobos State Park

Just a few miles south of Carmel, Point Lobos juts into the Pacific. I could have biked or walked, maybe done something about that lost muscle tone, but I chose the soft bottom solution and drove through an early morning rain shower. The spectacular feast of colors that composes the Pt. Lobos landscape startled me with elaborate painterly compositions of wind bent cedars, sage green lichen on rocks along the path and purple seaweed massing in the turquoise ocean below.  As I tromped along, a bunny dashed across the path.  I stopped to paint two water colors trying to capture the purples, blues, yellows, greens,  vermillion,  and  orange. One picture more or less succeeded, but the other was a pale wet mud pie. Perhaps watercolor painting is also a use or lose condition.

A baby deer stared out from a thicket that barely screened the beige backs and legs of its older relatives. I froze in my tracks to watch.  Eventually, the fawn turned into the brush to hide. Intermittent sunshine formed sparkling jewels of light on the Spanish moss hanging from trees and on the knee high grass in the meadows. At sea, rocky remnants of  earthquakes created a coastal barrier over which the water thunders, splashes and recedes. On Sunday morning, I headed to Monterey which lays large claims on Stevenson’s fame though he only stayed here for three months while his beloved Fanny Osborne completed divorce proceedings. A large sign on the waterfront asserts that Stevenson  composed the plot to Treasure Island while walking that beach. Yet, in Napa Valley there was an historical marker that claimed he used a lookout point there as the model for Spyglass Hill.

Pacific House, Monterey State Historic Park.

Pacific House, Monterey State Historic Park.

The sailor’s flophouse where he lived in 1879 has been fixed up and  renamed Stevenson House.  I pressed close to the glass cases to scrutinize the writer’s silver flask, wallet, and pocket knife. The knife had all the recognizable Swiss army knife features and one curious addition we don’t need today, the button hook. My heart clutched briefly to see the man’s personal items – his lighter/flint box, a silver box that may have stored cigarettes and another for calling cards, a green velvet jacket laid out on the bed in the room Stevenson probably occupied. The quill pen and ink stand seemed too ceremonial; surely all that countryside trekking required a portable notebook and pencil.

While the well-informed state historian plied me with facts about the Stevenson family dining table that came all the way from Scotland to Samoa where Stevenson died  and then back to California with Fanny and her children, I studied Stevenson’s photograph.  By the lines on his face, I could tell he was a man who laughed.

Monterey was a fishing and and whaling port in Stevenson’s day. Undertaking a whale watching cruise thus seemed in character, albeit with a group of intense and rather humorless tourists clad in expensive waterproof jackets and brand new sneakers, instead of in the company of salty dog sailors.  The whale watchers clustered at the bow commanding their chunk of railing until the captain asked everybody to move back. A handful of passengers huddled in the cabin, their stomachs churned by the winter wave action. While the marine biologist blared from the loudspeaker that the whales have super sensitive hearing, she praised the boat captain for staying back far enough so the whales wouldn’t hear the engines.  What about the loudspeaker announcing every blow spout, I wondered, don’t the whales hear that? But then I come from the contemplative school of silent nature watching, which I imagine Stevenson shared.

Wrapping up my day in Monterey, I sped north to Napa Valley and Calistoga where Robert and Fanny Stevenson enjoyed the first weeks of their marriage. Calistoga sits among thermal geysers where Native Americans once built sweat lodges and contemporary sybarites soak in hot mineral water or mud wraps. Calistoga strives to conjure its past by cultivating a quasi-frontier era  vibe with signs and store names. The railroad track that the Stevenson entourage traveled over still runs through town. Not sure what happened to the trains.

Stevenson’s ailments would have profited by the mineral baths. During his California visit he suffered from pleurisy, eczema and episodes of acute illness probably brought on by malnutrition and stress.  Not one to miss a hot soak, I signed up for a mud bath which effectively ended thinking and action that day.

On the morrow, I browsed through the Silverado Museum  in the St. Helena Public Library Center. Volunteers lovingly tend a collection of letters, manuscripts, memorabilia, even the lead soldiers Stevenson played with as a child and his wedding ring. During my walks around town, I searched for cornerstones in St. Helena’s older stone buildings that might fix them to 1880, but saw only  handsome examples of 20th century local prosperity.


Intent on muscling up hills or down glens, I decided to hike up Mt. Saint Helena where the newly married couple occupied an abandoned mine manager’s cabin for several months in 1880 while Robert wrote The Silverado Squatters.  Today, the area is part of  Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  About a  half-mile up  the trail, far enough that some effort is required, a polished stone monument of an open book on blocks of granite memorializes the site where the miner’s cabin stood.

Monument to RLS on site of miner's cabin in RLS State Park.

Monument to RLS on site of miner’s cabin in RLS State Park.

Another plaque I had seen in the area avvered that Mt. St. Helena was the spyglass hill in  “Treasure Island‘ which was written after he, Fanny and her children went to live in the Stevenson family home in Scotland later in 1880. Right above the mining cabin site marker I climbed a rocky promontory which offered a clear view of the surrounding landscape. It was easy to imagine Stevenson settled in the chair-like embrace of the yellow orange rock, smoking and staring down at the Napa valley.

Back at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga,  I turned to my lifelong companion of the imagination, Robert Louis Stevenson,  to keep me entertained until sleep.


Carmel has no street addresses. Locations are identified by the nearest cross streets.  Inns, hotels and guest houses are clustered around the shopping area. I stayed at the Tally Ho Inn (Monte Verde & 6th Streets) across the street from its more expensive and better known sister property, The Pine Inn Hotel.

Carmel:  The Village Corner Bistro

Carmel area: Point Lobos State Reserve  Extensive network of trails for self-guided hikes.

Carmel Visitors Center

Calistoga:  Indian Springs Resort and Spa, 1712 Lincoln Ave.

Calistoga: Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery

Calistoga: Sharpsteen Museum

St. Helena: Gillwoods Cafe 

St. Helena: Tra Vigne

St. Helena:  Silverado Museum

Monterey: Stevenson House.

Monterey: Monterey Bay Aquarium



Written by patwa

08/08/2014 at 8:09 pm

U.S. Flags and Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare

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“It has become so to-day that when you see the flag boldly and proudly displayed you smell a rat somewhere. The flag has become a cloak to hide iniquity. We have two American flags always: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly it it means that things are under control; when the poor fly it it means danger, revolution, anarchy. ”

Henry Miller portrait from Library of Congress.

Author Henry Miller wrote this in 1941 during a cross-country road trip of the United States of America.  He had lived in Paris during the 1930s and settled in California after returning to the States, as described in the  Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

I apply Henry Millers mid 20th century observations to the 21st century ornamental habit practiced by Congressional elites, Cabinet members and corporate executives  — the wearing small U.S. flag pins on their suit lapels.  Do they control the flag and what it stands for?

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller, New Directions Publishing Corp, 1945, p. 37.

Henry Miller Online Resources:

A review of Air-Conditioned Nightmare that appeared in The Satirist.

Henry Miller website by Valentine Miller, his daughter.

Nexus, The Henry Miller Journal.

Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, California

Written by patwa

11/06/2012 at 5:52 pm

Nina the Witch

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Ninashka Hanz talks about being a good witch. How Wicca is the only religion a young woman like her could embrace.  The Slovak grandmother taught her the old ways and what was the point of life but to be one with nature and your own true self? Her Czech grandmother from the other side of her family was a witch too, but deep and dark.

Los Padres National Forest. Image from

Los Padres National Forest. Image from

Twenty and wondrous to watch, she moves from one campsite to the next, changing conversations, flipping campers’ radio dials. She approached our site after a short exchange in laid-back FM station style with Don the post office warehouse worker whose tent was pitched nearest the forest.  Then we watched her sashay up to AM Top 40 tuned Joe Six-Pack camping with a family not his own, having exchanged his kids for someone else’s when a new Momma came into his life. I thought I’d seen the young woman roving the campsites somewhere before.

Nina says the big Rec-V next to our van belongs to an ex-Navy guy who was at Ft. Meyers back in the late sixties and now drives around the lower 48 from state park to federal forest, camping out year-round.  “I tried to sell him on driving up to Alaska,” Nina said, “but he didn’t want to drive outside the borders of the USA. Go figure.”

Later we realized we’d seen her hitching on Route 101, fetching groceries.  I spotted her first, warned Les to slow down.  “It’s a girl.  We have to pick her up.”  He shrugged, drove past. “We’re headed up to Mono, need to get there before dark.”  By now,  surely he sensed I was exhausted by his silence on the road and needed to talk to other people.  We’d been road tripping the better part of a month without saying much.  Get up in the morning, drive, stop, gas up and go on.  Smoke into a state recreation area, eat, sleep and do it all over again.  The pots of coffee on the Coleman burner marked the passing days.  

I told Les that he and I used to be on the opposite sides of some line. If I hadn’t crossed over and made a move, nothing would have happened. Now I crossed the line to move outward again, in this case the line is a sandy gritty campground path that connects the tent sites to the restroom and bathhouse.  I’m headed for a young couple huddled around a campfire and soon enough I realize the female is the same person I’d seen that afternoon on 101.  

I offer Nina and Joe Six Pack a bag of marshmallows.  I’m guessing that Nina is reluctant to waste her time with him because that’s what she calls him to his face, Joe Six Pack.  I hang around, toasting marshmallows and keeping the conversation around the crackling fire drifting upward instead of down into a silent gully of stoned introspection. Nina is sucking her beer bottle and complaining her life is not worth much, the other face of the girl who says her ambition is to make money packing Alaska salmon. I tell her what she’s doing now is still an opportunity, not a mistake.

Nina holds court at Mono Campground, so named after the last great mononucleosis epidemic of 1969.  Not really; Les and I entertained ourselves with such made-up road stories. We’d been there ten days now and Nina long ago installed herself as unofficial hostess greeting all newcomers, visiting her favored campers each day.

Nina would come round, telling the older folks how she lives in state parks and national lands. “It’s my land,” she’d say.  “Yours too.  Take advantage of it.  Stay as long as you like.  Remember, these forests belong to us — We the American People.”  I’d nod and smile at Nina, then repeat what she said to Les who was cleaning his revolver under the plastic pull-out awning. I’d asked him to show me how to aim and shoot it, not like I knew anyone else with a weapon like that. “It is her land, you see, Les? And ours too.  America, land of the free. This is government forest, owned by we the people, so she’s living on her own property.”  My volume climbed.  I was trying to shake Les from his skeptical view of Nina.  He pulled his lips back in the fake mad-dog smile.  We hiked far into Los Padres Forest and I learned to hold, aim and release the trigger, without ammo.

If anyone interesting pulled into the neighborhood, as we called our corner of the three campgrounds, Nina invited them over to her site for wine, dope and guitar tunes. “Before I became a witch,” she said, “I was a singer in a rock band. I was the drummer’s old lady,” she bragged.  “They had to let me sing or he wouldn’t play and that group needed a drummer.  Couldn’t play for nothing without him.” She’s her own old lady now, just twenty years, writing ballads about the meaning of life, too young to have a storehouse for the meaning.

We bathed in the sulphur hot springs and she talked to her dog Sugarfoot.  “All bark, no bite, but they don’t know that,” she confided, pulling shreds of  Bugler tobacco out of the economy size can and piling it into two glued together Top rolling papers.  “Hey Sugar, hey Foot — go kill, maim and scare,” she joked at the dog, a mangy white cur that splayed on the dusty dry grass nosing its hindquarters .  She spoke without raising her head from licking the seam on the cigarette.  I ask her where she got the tobacco. “Downtown, you know, in Carthage, east of Santa Barbara.”  The joke was there’s nothing east of Santa Barbara but mountains. 

Another time when we were together in the bathhouse, I asked her, “You ever get scared out on the road alone, sleeping in campgrounds? Not knowing where your next meal or ride is coming from?” Nina laughed, “Fear?  Of what?  Magic protects me,” she said.  “I really am a witch; no one would mess with me.”    Like Sugarfoot, she’s all bark, no muscle. I think Sugarfoot does his part; looks like a mean junkyard dog. 

Later I heard her giggles while she toyed away the night.  She’d moved on from Joe Six to the ex-Navy guy in the big motor home. When I walked by, they leaned back on folding chairs looking at the stars.  “Have some wine and weed,” she urged. “Andy has some of the good stuff, Maui magic.  Come on, let’s talk about things tragic and all that good-lookin’ magic.”

“That sounds like a line from a song,” I said.  “Write that one up!”  Nina grimaced and pulled her guitar from behind the chair.  “Sure, I’ll come by later when I’ve punched it out.”

Toting her guitar and Bugler can, a stack of tattered songbooks under her armpit, Nina sloped towards our camp.  She showed me her own lyrics copied on three-hole lined school notebook paper.  She banged out her twenty year old lament, a defensive answer to a world that has not dealt her well.  In the song, she wants to go to Scotland and she wants to go to Budapest to see what her grandmothers talked about.

 “My name was Hanzlik in the old country —  Czech and White Russian.” She sang patches of a language that only a million people know.  “There’s none of us left,” she slurred.  “We gypsies and witches, ‘zey killed all us women.  ‘Cept ‘zose who went hiding, ‘zey killed us all off.”

Nina slugged back cheap wine, fisting the bottleneck.  Now she’s sitting on a picnic table.  The ex-Navy man is sloshed and amazed by her. He’s wandered over to see why she’d been gone so long.  Nina says fuck a lot, has no lasting interest in him, knows the difference between knaves and knights. She’s telling us about different men she’d known, maybe to shuck off  Andy-the-Navy-guy or maybe to stir him. On the one hand I want to give her my time and my ear, but she talks cheap. Not new to me, this story.

She sings:  “Jest mello down some backroad, bein’ native and naive, eatin’ weeds and grazing dope, sniffing each other’s breeze.  Me and this spring’s lover, me and love me later. Sometimes my mind I play, sometimes each old day.  Beat the clock in corridors of plenty, listen to the voices rhyme, magic airwaves on the sundial.”  The song was truly awful.

“It might be time for me to leave Mono campground. Change my life,” she says, dragging on another Bugler reefer.  A scrap of tobacco from the end of the rolled cigarette sticks to her lip. 

Sure enough, she hopped in our van the next morning, headed out with us to the highway west of Santa Barbara.  The coast road, 101. Sugarfoot curled on a throw rug in the back and Nina crouched on her gear.  I swiveled around in the shotgun seat so I could talk to her and still keep an eye on the road ahead.  Les drove as usual, nodded once in a while towards the side view window.  Kept his peace when she broke the no smoking in the van rule and lit up in the back.

We dropped her off in Christmas (the town named Solvang), California within sight of the big yellow house that she said was her adopted mother’s. “I’ll stay here with her for a while, then head up to Alaska.  Time to get some money.”  In the right side-view mirror, I saw her stall around, put her knapsack and guitar on the ground next to Sugarfoot, then stick out her thumb. 



Little Caliente Hot Springs

Los Padres National Forest

Solvang, California

Written by patwa

27/03/2009 at 4:44 pm

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